Spritual Sufficiency in The Old Man And The Sea

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Santiago’s Self-Sufficiency

      Hemingway expresses his faith in the spiritual sufficiency of man to live life fully. The novel is replete with examples to support this theory. Santiago is an old fisherman who lives by fishing off the coast of Cuba along the Gulf Stream. He is alone in the world and his only companion - the boy Manolin who has been forced to go on another boat by his father after the old man had been unable to catch any fish for forty days and he had been fishless for another forty-four days. He goes out far into the sea confident with conviction that he would catch a big fish. But on this voyage, he is absolutely alone and the picture of this loneliness is brought out in the picture of Santiago rowing out into the dark. “Thus were other boats from the other beaches going out to sea and the Old Man heard the dip and push of this oars even though he could not see them.” Hemingway’s message as he presents it through Santigo’s story seems to be that the sufferings, the trials and tribulations of life cannot be escaped and one has to go through it in order to live life, moreover, one has to go through it alone. He cannot share his suffering with others. Santiago is towed by the huge marlin for two days and two nights and he endures the struggle wholeheartedly. His hands are injured his right hand bleeding, his left hand cramped and his back and muscles sore, he is tired, more tired than he has ever been due to his continued struggle and his lack of proper nourishment, rest and sleep. He is utterly exhausted and he feels that the fish is killing him. But he persists in his solitary struggle knowing that he has to be alone to fight for his cause. Hemingway’s proclaims that a solitary struggle, wherein he relies no one but himself, his spirit and his own inner resources. And this portrayal of an individual, who relying upon himself only endures his trials, and his problems make him a romantic in the sense that he presents the natural order of man fighting for survival in a hostile world. This leads to the notion of Hemingway dealing with the romantic theme of an individual whose existence is reduced to a mere struggle to survival - a struggle between himself and the natural world. Santiago, therefore, faces the cruel sea alone, and he has to fight it out alone.

Social Alienation

      Hemingway had always presented his heroes and heroines as isolated men and women. People had no roots and no attachment to any social relationships. His men were isolated individuals, striving to achieve an alienated existence and to make a separate peace. Presenting such man was one of his major themes. For example, in A Farewell to Arms Frederic Henry has no history behind him. He has a father and grandfather somewhere in the recesses and he doesn’t have any kind of emotional attachment with them. Similarly, Catherine Barkley is also shown as having no other ties. Henry has a carefree, rootless life drifting on till he finds some meaning in loving Catherine, then makes “a separate peace” and deserts the war, going into an isolated world with Catherine to live a life of idealistic bliss in the mountains of Switzerland, away from all people and away from the brutal and harsh realities of war. In The Sun Also Rises Jack Barnes is a war-wounded man, who along with some other shell-shocked men and women suffering from post war desperation, lives a dissipated aimless life in Paris. They are happy in isolated life, loving life away from the post-war chaos. This theme of man attempting to escape artificial life was one of the more major themes in Hemingway. The desire for isolation was prompted not by wish for mere isolation from social life but by a wish for liberation. Truth and beauty can only be found in the lap of nature and in order to find it, man has to return to nature leaving behind the artificial and restrictive life in the midst of society. Looking at Santiago, from this point of view, who is completely free of any social ties except the deep attachment akin to that of a father for a son and any other restrictions as imposed on man by modern society and by venturing alone in the sea to meet his destiny alone, and to shape it by his own grim resolution and stoic endurance, he is the one hero who substantiates the concept of spiritual self-sufficiency.

Santiago’s Adventure and its Meaning

      From the very beginning of the text, Hemingway emphasizes Santiago’s isolated state as though pointing out that “the alienated individual” was the most insistent truth of the modern world. Santiago is an Old Man who fishes alone, and he goes out into his voyage alone as well as far out away from all people. “The old man knew he was going far out and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean”. Once out at the sea he is completely. alone except for the creatures of the sea. He has nobody to talk to nor a radio to keep him company. Therefore, he talks to himself. He thinks over various things or tells them to himself aloud. Critics have claimed that his courage, endurance, dignity, determination are all his and drawn from deep inner resources. The thoughts of the boy, DiMaggio, the lions and his past youth only remind of his inner strength and stamina. He has to fight his war alone. Therefore, he faces the marlin and later the sharks alone. He struggles against the huge marlin, bigger than he had ever seen or heard of alone for a period of two days and two nights untill he surfaces and draws the Old Man to a final battle that lost for half a day. All the while the Old Man never loses his resolve and determination though he grows to have a deep love and respect for him. He is a worthy adversary whom he regards as a friend and a true brother. Then he begins to feel sad and sorry for and even pities him but his determination to kill him never slackens. And at last through superhuman will and courage he is able to harpoon it. He wages a fierce battle against the sharks who attack his marlin and though he is exhausted yet he tried weaponless as never before. He struggles sharks with the same grim resolve and determination. As the sharks hit, tearing at the marlin’s flesh and mutilating it, he feels as though he himself has been hit and torn by the sharks. He apologizes to the marlin for running them both by coming out too far. But his relentless struggle proves futile as the sharks are too much for him to handle alone and eventually, only the skeleton is left. He sails homeward lightly, being beyond everything and as he reaches the shore, he makes the climb to his shack bearing his mast like the cross on his shoulders and goes to sleep in the image of Christ in crucification, face down, arms spread out and his injured and bleeding palms facing upwards. But eventually, on waking, he reconfirms himself Especially with Manolin’s assurance that he was not beaten and looks on forward in life to have a happy future, fishing together with Manolin. Santiago’s experience clearly shows how man may live a life of isolation, and yet live a complete and whole life due to his spiritual self-sufficiency, his complete and absolute confidence in his convictions and what he can do. As he himself says, “I will show what a man can endure and what a man can do”, and Santiago by the manner of his struggle proves it. His entire experience may be seen as life itself and his belief and convictions that are needed for a fulfilling life in this hostile world.

Spiritual Sufficiency Possible due to Social Ties

      However, to conclude with the above statement which would be doing an injustice to Hemingway’s art and philosophy. To read it as a mere story illustrating man’s isolation and alienation from society which would restrict its meaning and confine the text to one area, one level of literary study.

      Critics have in, fact, read the novel as the culminating point where the point is brought home that though man may try to establish an isolated ideal world by means of making a separate peace, he shall find fulfillment only after realizing the need for social relationship and intimacy. In order to understand the deeper significance of the novel one needs to go further than this view. Treating of Santiago’s isolation and looking at him is an alienated individual, though some critics contend that Hemingway had always been truly concerned with society and social ties right from the very beginning. Though he was not out to prove a social doctrine or philosophy or to establishes political doctrines he believed in, but after the post war desperation, the loss of belief and alienation of individual to individual he had come to a phase when he had realized man’s interdependence and need to be based in a society. His earlier aim was expressed in the Nick Adam’s stories and Lieutenant Frederic Henry, and their movement towards establishing a “separate peace”. The progress in his mindset can be seen in how from “a separate 'peace” we move on to “no man alone” as Harry Morgan expresses in To Have and Have Not and Robert Jordan expressing “no man is an island” in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and finally Santiago’s heart felt expression “No man is ever alone at sea”. This trajectory forms a point where Hemingway rejected society, social ties and all values related to a good social makeup. We have Hemingway reaching such a point in The Old Man and The Sea wherein he endorses deep moral values such as courage, humility, love and inter-dependence. From nihilism, Hemingway moves towards a philosophy of affirmation therefore, in the novel the basic message is of man’s inter-dependence and the real theme is of man’s social involvement and ties which make him the real person he should be.

Santiago and Creed of Interdependence

      Hemingway’s real emphasis is, therefore inter-dependence and not individualism, and this leads us to a consideration of the protagonist of The Old Man and The Sea Santiago and his experience from social context. He may have undergone an immense experience only showing his heroic individualism and oneness with the creatures of nature and a feeling of brotherhood and friendship with marlin, but he is able to undergo the pressure only because of his dependence on other and there is also his realization that he may have committed a sin in going too far out. During his ordeal, Santiago is physically alone but spiritually he is never alone. As a whole he has a lot of persons on whom he depends and by thinking of them he rejuvenates, himself and draws strength and inspiration. He is, therefore, able to survive due to this spiritual sufficiency. Santiago thinks of the boy Manolin and tells himself, “I told the boy I was a strange old man. ‘he said,’ Now is when I must prove it” He remembers the Negro he had defeated at hand wrestling and he tells himself how “he decided that he could beat anyone if he wanted to badly enough”, then he thinks of Dilkaggio, the great baseball star and he tells himself, “But I must have confidence and I must be worthy of the great DiMaggio who does all things perfectly even with the pain of the bone spur in his heel.” He thus depends on these people all the time. Apart from this, there is also the Old Man’s realization that going far out beyond all people was a sin that led to both his and the marlin’s ruin. He says, “I am sorry that I went too far out, I ruined us both.”

Other kinds of Dependence

      Apart from Santiago’s spiritual and psychological dependence on others, there is also a dependence on a physical and material level. For example, the owner of the restaurant “The Terrace” provides him food and coffee and sometimes beer to drink when he would, have starved due to his inability to catch any fish for a long stretch of time, and Perico gives him newspaper to read especially the news of his beloved baseball matches. The Old Man acknowledges his dependence on these men with gratefulness and humility. Santiago’s greatest source of inspiration and the person he depends on most is the boy Manolin who keeps him alive in many senses. In the introductory section, we notice how Manolin takes care of Santiago’s needs. Though he had been forced to leave the Old Man and go in another boat, he never leaves the Old Man. He comes to help the Old Man to carry his fishing equipment, buys him coffee and sardines for bait. He also brings food for the Old Man and we see him deciding to bring other things. “Where did you wash? the boy thought. The village water supply was two streets down the road. I must have water here for him, the boy thought, and soap and a good towel. Why am I so thoughtless? I must get him another shirt and a jacket for the winter and some sort of shoes and another blanket.”

      This physical dependence transcends into a psychological dependence during his ordeal at sea. As he struggles against the fish, he remembers the boy again and again and wishes aloud that the boy were there with him. He was the only person to give the Old Man companionship. While at home the Old Man wishes he were with him so that he wanted at least someone to talk to or a silent companion. He also draws inspiration and strength thinking of the boy and longs for the boy’s physical help in his fight. He would have been a great help in many ways. He would have tied the extra coil, rubbed his cramped hands and uncramped it, wetted the burning coil, etc. Santiago is, therefore, dependent on the boy to a very large extent. Similarly, the boy cares for and depends upon the Old Man. Santiago had taught him all that he knew about fishing and he cared for him like he were his own father. When the Old Man had been absent for so long the boy had been worried and used to come to his shack every morning to check whether he had returned or not. His love and concern comes across when in the concluding section after the Old Man’s return from his adventure, he runs around weeping for him, and also taking care of his needs, bringing food and ointment for his injured hands and boosting his morale saying he had not been beaten not by the fish, Lastly and by insisting that he would go out with him in the future no matter what his father said, makes the Old Man happy and confident again.


      Thus, it can be concluded that The Old Man and The Sea marks how Hemingway at the end of a long road had achieved faith in the spiritual sufficiency of life, lived for itself and lived fully. Hemingway portrays a lone man, isolated but never aloof nor alienated but strongly rooted in society and social involvement. Santiago goes far out and beyond all people in order to fight for his aim to catch a big fish and he does succeed in this, but not before his spiritual and psychological dependence on other is established and though he wins, he loses the marlin reason being his going beyond his allotted place, his true place in life. Frederic Henry finds bliss in isolated existence but loses it completely and also he does not come back to society. Santiago achieves victory in defeat during his isolated state but comes back to society wondering if anybody had missed him settling that many must have worried over his prolonged absence, and finally comes and admits that it was pleasant to have someone to talk to instead of speaking only to himself and the sea. We are also told that from now on, he wouldn’t be alone. The boy shall be his constant companion.

University Questions

Justify the statement that the main theme of the novel is man’s spiritual sufficiency.
Justify how Hemingway expresses his faith in the spiritual sufficiency of life, in the novel, The Old Man and The Sea.

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